PART 2: UT-led “Tennessee Digital Jobs Factory” evolved from a long-standing collaboration

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series focused on a how two separate Knoxville initiatives addressing workforce needs are also coming together.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

As noted in the first article in this series that published on Saturday in Teknovation Weekend, a University of Tennessee (UT)-led initiative called the “Tennessee Digital Jobs Factory” (TDJF) is playing a significant role as a partner for one of the three tracks of Pellissippi State Community College’s “Reimagine Your Career” initiative.

And, for two of the four key players at UT, it’s a continuation of an on-going collaboration.

“Dr. (Ken) Gilbert and I have been co-conspirators for a longtime,” Heather Morgan says of the former University of Tennessee, Knoxville Professor and Chair of the Business Analytics and Statistics Program in the Haslam College of Business. “He started the business analytics program at UT, the first in the country.”

While Gilbert officially retired from his faculty role in 2015, he continues to be active in a variety of UT-related initiatives. The latest is the TDJF effort where he has teamed with Morgan, a former student of Gilbert’s and now an Assistant Vice President for Research, Outreach and Economic Development for the UT System, and Lynn Youngs, Executive Director of UT Knoxville’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Morgan attributes TDJF to Gilbert’s vision to transform people’s lives through greatly improved digital skills. They first started discussing the concept in Summer 2019, months before COVID-19 was on the radar. Their goal was to provide free vocational training in digital technology, focusing on the underprivileged, the unemployed, and the underemployed.

As Gilbert said, it’s a matter of the have and have nots.

“Digital skills reflect the economic divide in the country,” he says, adding, “It’s destroying some jobs and creating others. There’s a huge shortage of people in areas like AI (artificial intelligence), cybersecurity, and data visualization. Those skills can be taught to anyone with the right aptitude.”

To achieve its goals, TDJF leverages online content from Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google, and other creators of high-quality online digital skills training. TDJF also provides the local support students need to complete the training and find a job.

“Our efforts were accelerated by the pandemic,” Morgan explained, noting that students were experiencing internship and job offers being rescinded. “We had a model that we thought would work. It was also a useful and marketable way (for students) to use their time and gain a certification.”

So, following the Silicon Valley culture, she says they decide to “move fast and break things.” The model was cohort and mentor-based with a schedule and milestones to be completed. The first two courses were launched in May 2020 and others have followed. The group is driven by its core principles (TDJF Principles) that include practicality and pragmatism, curated and applied curriculum, economic development, intellectual breadth and creativity, launching careers and endeavors, flexible and adaptable curriculum, and learning through service.

Until the collaboration with Pellissippi State, the focus has been mostly internal on UT, Knoxville students where they could gain certifications to enhance their resumes and the prospects of securing top jobs.

Gilbert describes the collaborators as the “leaky pipes group,” explaining that there are many opportunities for individuals to gain digital skills, but “there’s only a trickle coming out the other end.” With mentors, goals and schedule, he believes the trickle can become a stream.

“We are here to serve . . . to fill gaps,” Morgan says, with Gilbert adding, “The country needs an army of people to put existing technology to use.”

TDJF is a collaboration among people who share a passion for creating pathways to careers in data technology. In addition to Morgan, Gilbert, and Youngs, Jay Eckles and Randall Granier are key players. The former is Group Lead for Web Services at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a part-time lecturer at UTK. Granier is a Principal Solution Architect at AT&T Labs and an Adjunct Professor of Software Engineering at Regis University. Both will be teaching in Pellissippi’s Reimagine Your Career Program.

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